26 January 2012

Gregory House Is Not a Ph.D.

Vikash erred in using pictures of Hugh
Laurie to illustrate his post. Nobody
wants to see that.
Over at the Duck of Minerva, Vikash Yadav uses House, M.D. to highlight what he sees as the misdiagnoses of rational choice theory. Phil Arena, himself a formal theorist, rejoins that Dr. House is not his role model and presents a defense of what we might call "mere rationality" in the face of reductii ad absurdum like Vikash's.

As important as the topics raised in these posts are, they don't go far enough. Considering that one of the major points of Vikash's argument is about House's choice to be addicted, Phil, surprisingly, doesn't make the obvious point about Gary Becker's theory of rational addiction. Becker often gets slammed for this as being an example of rationalist thinking taken too far, but consider what happens when you decide to get drunk. Your actions are, essentially, logically similar to those of Becker's agent, with the caveat that in the morning (or, at least, by mid-afternoon) you will again be sober.

So alcohol is clearly a way by which agents choose to alter their own preference functions credibly and (in the moment) irreversibly. This is, it turns out, not so difficult to model mathematically. And I would argue that the discounting logic that goes into the question of Optimal Drunkenness (or Optimal Sponge) is something that actually cannot be expressed as well in words as in algebraic notation. (Indeed, words are always an inferior vector for expressing logical relationships if efficiency is our only criterion, and they are almost always strictly inferior in terms of their precision.)

But note that this is not an ontological or epistemological dispute. It is very precisely a methodological one, about the best ways for social scientists (and everyone else, really) to think about how to explore and to know the social universe. And here Phil's broader point stands. Even though one class of theorist managed to colonize formal logic first in the social science, there is no requirement that all theories expressed formally be of their ilk.

20 January 2012

Definitions matter, so please provide them

Immerman, An Empire for Liberty (2010, Princeton UP):
Empire, as a noun, was value-free at the time the United States gained its independence. While its precise definition is elusive because of the problem of translation, it derived from the Latin imperium, which in English approximates the words rule and sovereignty. Hence its definition was functional or instrumental. Greeks used it to describe the relationship between the city-states that united to oppose the Persians (who also comprised an entity called an empire). But Athens exercised leadership over its fellow city-states; it did not really rule them.
I am not trying to be difficult here, but I find this paragraph difficult to follow in a way that I rarely find (empirical) political science hard to understand. Why are we talking about imperium to describe the Athenians' relationship with the Delian League, when there are perfectly good words like hegemony to do that work instead? In what way was Athenian "leadership" different from Persian "rule"?

And why does the "Augustan" invention of bureaucracy (which, to readers of S.E. Finer's History of Government from the Earliest Times or, I don't know, Weber, would come as a surprise) that Zimmerman attributes to Michael Doyle's work two sentences later represent a phase change in "empire"? (Does that mean that we should call the "Augustan Threshold" the "Qin Revolution"?)

Some of my friends often claim they find historians hard to read because so many concepts are rendered informally or, worse, idiographically. I used to disagree with them. But the more I encounter academic historians seeking to make grand theoretical (or grand-theoretical) claims, the more I sympathize with their complaints.

19 January 2012

"That's important." versus "That's cool!"

The epitome of cool.
There's a fundamental distinction between social scientists who study something because it's important and social scientists who do research because it's cool.

Like all overgeneralizations, that's an overly broad statement, but I want to push it a little. Without confessing too much to the Internet, I have to say that sometimes I find work published in political science journals tedious, even when I think that the substance is important. Conversely, sometimes I find work done in economics to be flat-out awesome, even when I think the substance is meaningless.

The difference is visceral. My response to work in the former category might be to dutifully file the article away if it's relevant to a project I'm working on, and then remember to put "(Author 2011)" in my lit review section. My response to work in the latter category is to email it to my friends, usually with a subject line like "Awesome!!!" and then a message like "Sweet identification strategy!!!!!" (Cf. evidence on educational sorting from the market for movie star marriages.)

So I'm pretty firmly in the awesome camp.
This research design is going
to be legend ... wait for it ...

Ideally, that means my projects would combine novel, exacting theory with testable implications that involved clear identification strategies and unique datasets or cases. And sometimes that happens! The converse is that in the worst-case scenario I could distracted by the awesome nature of a dataset and a case and try to back out a theory to justify spending time on it.

Fortunately, that really hasn't happened much since first year.

But it means that I really can't wake up in the morning determined to study something because it's important. It's the diamonds-water paradox of social science. Freakonomics (at least the early, peer-reviewed Levitt stuff) was awesome and often theoretically relevant; the reaction from the policymaking public (and often the disciplinary public too) was often "Who cares?" By contrast, another grinding, dull paper based on a novel dataset establishing some "important" and "worthy" fact is easier to justify to non-academics but leaves everyone except for your subfield stablemates bored to tears. (See all area studies journals, especially those below the first rank.)

I wish I were a guy motivated by importance. It seems like it would be more rewarding to talk about (say) nuclear nonproliferation if you thought your work could avert the deaths of millions. By contrast, I can't be the only guy (please say I'm not the only guy) to think that an accidental use of a WMD could be a really awesome treatment, since it would be at least as-if random. (I'm joking, mostly. But we all know that papers like Acemoglu and Robinson have used treatments that were fairly horrific to place in pretty good journals.)

So maybe it's a phase. But even if I grow out of it, I'm not sure that the discipline will.

13 January 2012

Google is incredibly smart

Well, there's no way that this Google search should have worked, but it did, and now I'm super-amazed at Google.
I think by now we've all experienced the "Google glitch," which is when you assume that Google knows exactly what you're talking about even though there's no way it should. For instance, the other day, I was looking at china patterns, and so I simply googled "china." There were a lot of results I honestly didn't expect, because I somehow thought that Google would know I wanted to learn more about saucers and serving dishes. After all, it was sitting right there during the entire conversation!

But this is something else. This is Google understanding that "ajps" is "American Journal of Political Science." And that is amazing.

Also, a sure sign that Google + Siri + UAVs = Skynet.

10 January 2012

Nights in White Satin

The Cambridge Nights Web site is a great idea, but I can't help but notice: Only white(ish) men have ideas? Anyway, I prefer Blam Nights.

04 January 2012

"All our language has been taxed by war"

The news comes that Boeing will shut down its defense plant in Wichita, Kansas.

Allen Ginsberg would be ecstatic.

I'm an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
          but not afraid
                    to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
                    because not only my lonesomeness
                                it's Ours, all over America,
                                                     O tender fellows--
                                & spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy
                                in the moon 100 years ago or in 
                                          the middle of Kansas now..

02 January 2012

Scholars shouldn't host their professional Web sites on institutional servers

This cover suggests two things:
(1) Why do we think that the death of print media
will lead to dumber media coverage of anything?
(2) Yes, I'm insinuating that this is how
 I think most scholars still see the Internet.
And its battles. On the frontiers. Of cyberspace.
Tomorrow, I'll continue my tour of methodology by giving quantoids the same respectful treatment I gave to quallys on Friday. But in the meantime, I want to raise an issue suitable for a federal holiday:

Why do scholars host their professional Web sites on institutional servers?

To be fair, I can understand why this is the default position for most scholars. First, unless you're a rare scholar--one of the top five in your field, the kind of scholar who has a better name brand than the institution at which you're located--then having myuniversity.edu/myname is more immediately attractive than having myname.com.

Second, as my fictitious Jewish grandfather might say, hosting your own site (even on someone else's server) means you're dealing with the FTPs and the logons and the HTML--who can understand it?

Third, academics are weird about self-promotion. Even though they live in a world entirely determined by reputation (think about it: we have anonymous peer review but we make sure that our names are on our articles and books!), they think that there's something unseemly about trying to ... advertise the work that they've dedicated their lives to. Much better, of course, to hope that someone takes the time to read their work in the Journal of Tiresome Drivel (newly included in SSCI), their monograph with North Kentucky Press, and their, um, anonymous blog.


So anyone who registers myname.com is obviously a self-promoter of the worst kind. Probably votes Republican, too.

But anyone who has bothered to set up a Web site on a university server has already probably overcome objection #2. (If you attend my institution, Prestig* U., you've proven yourself extremely fluent with Web technology ca. 1996 if you've managed to set up your Web site on our server.) And objection #3 is, ahem, pretty transparently dumb, too, since you're thinking about setting up a Web site on the Internet.

So Objection #1 is pretty much the biggest problem. But that's wrong. In fact, having an institutionally-affiliated Web site is probably a bigger problem in the long run. Why? Because your affiliation might change. And if it does, then you probably won't set up your Web site at your new institution as nicely as it had been at your old job. Think of it: after moving cross-country, with all that entails, are you really going to want to spend another evening recoding HTML or even sitting down with iWeb to cleanse all mentions of Former University from your site?

What that implies, in turn, is that you will put up a temporary site with some of the things that used to be on your Web site, with every intention of making it better in "the future," a mysterious time when you have the leisure to take care of such things, or, even worse, that you'll just let your Former University Web site keep going until some tight-fisted administrator kills your site and you have to scramble to upload everything to a hastily-written site on a new server. In either case, you won't get anything like the beneift you imagined when you first decided to host your working papers and (pirated) published articles. This applies most strongly to graduate students, of course, whose institutional affiliations are guaranteed to change and who have the most to gain from as their reputation grows.

*"Prestig" is not a good thing. Prestige is to "prestig" as the Nobel Prize in Physics is to the Bank of Sweden Memorial Prize in Economics.